Photo by Kelly Sikkema

Mindfulness of Distress

Photo by Kelly SikkemaIt’s been a trying stretch of time for many of us, but if we are honest with ourselves we must admit that no time in history has been exempt from suffering. At any given moment, someone, somewhere is experiencing distress. Fortunately, a dedicated mindfulness practice can help prepare us to meet these inevitable challenges with greater wisdom and ease. This might allow us to decrease our own suffering and prevent ourselves from mindlessly causing or exacerbating harm to others.

How timely that a pandemic has swept in like a wake up call in the midst of a worldwide trend toward a “me first” mentality. Some believed that building walls and focusing on our own self-interests would spare us from the consequences of poisoning the Earth and ignoring the disempowered – or that a charismatic personality could protect us. Consider the priorities represented in the statistic that the US has around a million hospital beds (according to a 2018 American Hospital Association survey) but an estimated 2.4 million beds for incarcerated people (according to the Prison Policy Initiative).

It’s magical thinking to believe a select few could find happiness climbing on the backs of the forgotten on an increasingly inhospitable planet. This is nature’s awesome reminder that we are all interconnected (the Earth, its beings, and beyond) and that, underneath it all, the most powerful among us are just as vulnerable as the most marginalized. A pandemic is a great equalizer – it knows no walls – and it’s painful way to awaken to our common humanity. Mindfulness might help us learn from it.

Our animal instinct is to escape painful experiences and this is understandable. Though bivalves, like scallops and clams, don’t have brains, they react in a self-protective manner to stressful stimuli. This fight-flight-freeze reaction is meant to increase our chances of survival. The problem is, instinctive responses are unhelpful in mitigating many of the stressors of modern society and sometimes these impulses make things worse for ourselves and others. The current crisis provides us many clear examples of this. Luckily humans have relatively sophisticated brains that can, with training, learn to override harmful instincts when needed.

Mindfulness teaches us that we are capable of meeting challenges compassionately, flexibly and skillfully. Through practice, we paradoxically discover that attending to and allowing difficult experiences to be as they are with an attitude of kindness, alters our relationship to them in such a way that deeper and more lasting beneficial change can emerge. This may be due to a number of mechanisms:

Improved Attention

Through enhanced sustained and selective attention, as well as better attentional control, our moment by moment experience gives us more accurate information about our internal states, the external environment, and their interactions. We are better able to shift our attention to where it’s most needed, hold it steady amidst distractions, and gain access to important information that we might have otherwise missed or distorted. This allows us to make better choices in responding to situations, including how we can best care for ourselves and others when we’re feeling stressed or depleted.

Reduced Reactivity

A mindful pause makes space for reasoned decision making so that we might have a choice in whether or not we engage in potentially harmful instincts like lashing out, hoarding resources, disconnecting, or falling into despair. When we’re mindful, we step out of automatic pilot and engage our executive functions rather than our lizard brain. We are able to observe our inner experience rather than being caught up in it – a process sometimes called decentering. The memories, associations, and predictions that usually color our experience are instead viewed as passing phenomena of the mind. In order to observe in this way, we must be able to accept what’s already here. Some studies have found that mindfulness interventions that only develop the skill of single pointed concentration are not effective in reducing stress or regulating emotions. Cultivating an attitude of acceptance is essential, it seems, to reducing reactivity.

Decentering represents a metacognitive capacity to observe items that arise in the mind (e.g. thoughts, feelings, memories) with healthy psychological distance, greater self-awareness and perspective-taking. — King & Fresco (2019)

Cognitive Flexibility and Neuroplasticity

The changes in the organization of the brain that occur through learning are called neuroplasticity. Practice strengthens brain mechanisms that allow us to switch more efficiently between mutually exclusive modes of being. Mindfulness practice increases the efficiency with which we can switch out of doing into being mode when appropriate. Research has shown that during meditation the Default Mode Network (DMN, associated with doing mode) is quiet and the Task Positive Network (TPN, associated with being mode) is engaged. The DMN is the circuitry in our brain that’s active when we’re self-referencing, making judgments, and thinking about the past and future. These functions are important for our functioning in the conventional world, but can become problematic when we get stuck in them. Meditation is correlated with reduced activation and functional connectivity of the DMN. When the TPN is engaged, we are focusing attention on the present moment, such as when we meditate on the breath or other body sensations.

Improved Emotional Intelligence, Self-Regulation and Insight

The self-awareness that is cultivated through mindfulness practice enhances our ability to recognize our own thoughts, feelings and body sensations, allowing us to calm the nervous system, access higher thinking, and respond appropriately. Acknowledging our own vulnerabilities with kindness, we become more understanding and forgiving of others and tend to act more pro-socially. In addition, the ability to observe thoughts, emotions, body sensations, & urges rather than being caught up in them allows us to step back a bit so we can see our experiences for what they really are and respond more skillfully. Through observation, we come to understand some important truths that, when ignored or denied, can serve to increase our distress:

  • Much of our sense of control in the world is an illusion
  • Suffering occurs in the gap between reality and expectation, especially when we try to force what’s already here to fit our expectations
  • Everything changes
  • The unfolding of events is largely impersonal

The mechanisms of action discussed above are also many of the ingredients of resilience. Mindfulness practice expands our window of tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty through creating the ideal state of mind in which our fears can be safely and effectively explored. With practice, we build trust in ourselves to cope effectively. False associations between actual experience and imagined danger dissolve and we discover that even the most difficult situation is workable when met with mindfulness and compassion.

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

Lynn Ungar, Pandemic


Bernstein, A, Hadah, Y, & Fresco, D (2019). Metacognitive processes model of decentering: emerging methods and insights. Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 245-251.

Garland, EL & Fredrickson, BL (2019). Positive psychological states in the arc from mindfulness to self-transcendence: extensions of the Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory and applications to addiction and chronic pain treatment. Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 184-191.

King, AP & Fresco, DM (2019). A neurobehavioral account for decenterin as the salve for the distressed mind. Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 285-293.

Lindsay, EK & Creswell, JD (2019). Mindfulness, acceptance, and emotion regualation: perspectives from Monitor and Acceptance Theory (MAT). Current Opinion in Psychology Vol 28, 120-125.

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